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If the play’s the thing, then what about gender?


If the play’s the thing, then what about gender?

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Theater offers windows on the world, yet only a fraction of plays produced anywhere are written by women. This arts parity issue has urgency with national initiatives extending to Omaha, where theater artists variously discuss the problem and implement remedies.

“The initiatives have been around for about a decade now,” said Creighton University theater professor Amy Lane. “The most well-known, 50/50 by 2020, started in response to a study that revealed women’s voices grossly underrepresented in theaters.”

In 2006, 17 percent of plays professionally produced nationwide (12 percent on Broadway) were written by women. “Surprising,” Lane said, given that “60 percent of the theater audience is women.”

She wonders if “there will be true gender equity by 2020” and what “progress” has been made thus far.

UNO theater professor Cindy Melby Phaneuf echoes many when she says, “My opinion is we are moving in the right direction, but still have a long way to go.” She heads the National Theatre Conference, whose Women Playwright Initiative has produced 500 plays by women since 2011 and expects to reach 1,000 by 2020. “I am encouraged by the energy and interest in gender parity, but am most interested in taking action.”

“I support these initiatives and applaud the theaters implementing them,” said Omaha playwright Ellen Struve.

Struve’s had plays mounted at the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) and Shelterbelt Theatre and across the nation.

“When I began writing plays, I didn’t know many other women getting produced on a regular basis. This past year I was able to invite more than a dozen Omaha-based women playwrights to participate in the 365 Women A Year project. It was so exhilarating to look at that list of writers. Even better was to see a few of the plays fully-produced by Denise Chapman at the Union for Contemporary Art.”

2017 panels hosted by the Blue Barn Theater and the University of Nebraska at Omaha dialogued about the social-economic context behind exclusion and why plays written by women would enrich any season.

“Panels are great for raising awareness. Representation matters: for women and female-identifying playwrights, directors, actors, designers, crews, administrators. Discussions are fine, but action is what is needed,” said  Lane.

She created the 21 & Over series at OCP “to introduce Omaha to new works and new voices.” 21 & Over seasons were 50/50 by 2020 compliant, she said..

OCP’s ongoing Alternative Programming series continues to be diverse.

Creighton and UNO are devoting their respective theater departments’ entire 2018-2019 performance seasons to works by women playwrights.

Lane said Creighton’s “made a commitment to continue with the 50/50 by 2020 Movement” beyond this season.

Phaneuf and colleagues want to move things forward.

“UNO and Creighton have agreed to shine a light on what our greater Omaha community is doing already and look to the future to provide more opportunities to revel in women’s voices. The goal is gender parity on a permanent basis as an ordinary way of programming our seasons representing diverse voices. With parity also comes a desire to produce plays by writers of color. We are constantly on the lookout for plays that represent a variety of cultures and heritages.”

Outside the academic setting, Omaha presents a mixed bag in theater gender parity.

Phaneuf said despite some gains, many Omaha theaters present seasons with only one or two works by women. Sometimes, none.

“Those making artistic decisions at Omaha theaters either care about this issue or they don’t. If they care, then it is not a difficult task to make sure a theater’s season includes works by women,” Lane said. “There are plenty of terrific plays out there and plenty of resources to find them. If this is not an issue that matters to them, then they shouldn’t be surprised if they get called out. I think more of us who do care should speak out more when we see gender parity ignored.”

OCP artistic director Kimberly Hickman said “more opportunities for female artists is among her programming guidelines.” This past season several OCP playwrights and composers identified as women as did all its guest directors and many designers.

“Those priorities remain in place for 2018-2019.”

“Parity in theater is a complex issue that can’t be simplified to only gender,” Hickman said.

A session on female leadership she attended at a recent conference for regional theaters brought this home.

“While the room of women had many things in common, our experiences were very different due to ethnicity, sexuality, economic status, academic background, location. All these factors need to be taken into consideration. I believe the best way to make progress is to look at who is at the table making decisions. If the people all look the same, that is a problem and steps need to be taken to evolve. I also think accountability is important. I have intentionally surrounded myself with people I know will hold me accountable.”

The Shelterbelt has a demonstrated “strong commitment to gender parity, not only for playwrights, but for all production positions,” said executive director Roxanne Wach. “We do try to include at least 50 percent women playwrights in a season, while still creating a balance in storytelling and genres. It’s a conscious choice by our reading committee and a shared vision of our board.

“I personally feel if we don’t start with parity in the small theaters, it will never happen in larger theaters.”

Shelterbelt’s won recognition from the International Centre for Women Playwrights for reaching equity goals.

“To look just at playwrights is only scratching the surface,” Wach adds. “We’ve got to start valuing the work women bring to all areas of theater production and the great value in having different points of view.”

Omaha’s largest footprint on the national theater scene, the Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC), uses a 100 percent blind reading process selecting plays.

“We are one of the few major development programs that do this,” producing artistic director Kevin Lawler said. “We have had many long debates about whether we should change to have predetermined selection percentages to include gender, race, identity, but the overwhelming consensus by our staff and those who attend the conference is to keep the selections blind.

“Even with a blind selection we have always been close to parity. This year was a clean 50-50 split. Our women playwrights often appear on the Kilroys List (of most recommended unproduced or underproduced plays).”

UNO’s new Connections series is being curated from GPTC works by underrepresented playwrights.

GPTC playwright Sara Farrington terms parity “a triggery question” and initiatives to date “a baby step.”

“Many people simply don’t and won’t trust plays by women. It is astonishing people still assume women can or will only write about being imprisoned by their bodies or men. That idea has been beaten into a mass theater-going audience by over-produced, overrated, wildly misogynistic male playwrights and producers and by artistic directors financing and programming plays with reductive and fearful depictions of female characters.

“Women playwrights have a deep, refined, 200-proof rage. Rage makes for badass and innovative storytelling. Women playwrights tell stories backwards, sideways, in a spiral, upside down, from angles you’d never expect. They are utterly complex, psychologically profound and contemporary.”

Fellow GPTC playwright Shayne Kennedy, a Creighton grad, calls for systemic change.

“I believe men and women tell stories differently and because the creative industries have long been dominated by male voices, we as a culture have become conditioned to hear in those voices. I think to correct the imbalance we are going to need some risk-takers, visionaries and deliberately opened minds.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Link to the 2018-2019 UNO theater season at:

http://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-communication-fine-arts-and-media/theatre/index.php

Select UNO Theater 2018-2019 season:

TARTUFFE (Studio)

by Molière, adapted by Constance Congdon from a literal prose translation by Virginia Scott

Director Jackson Newman

August 23-25

THE CLEARING

by Helen Edmundson

Director Lara Marsh

September 26-29, October 3-6

SECRET GARDEN

Book & Lyrics by Marsha Norman, Music by Lucy Simon

Director D. Scott Glasser, Musical Director Shelby VanNordstand

October 31-November 3, 7-10, 14-18

CONNECTIONS

Director Dr. Ron Zank

February 20-23, 27- March 2

MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

by Anne Washburn

Director: Jeremy Stoll

March 14-17, 2019

THE WOLVES

by Sarah DeLappe

Director Dr. Cindy Melby Phaneuf

April 10-13, 17-20, 2019

___________________________

Link to the 2018-2019 Creighton theater season at:

https://www.creighton.edu/ccas/fineandperformingarts/boxoffice/

Select Creighton Theater 2018-2019 season:

HANDLED

Written by Shayne Kennedy

World premiere play/Mainstage Theater

October 31 – November 4, 2018

KINDERTRANSPORT

Written by Diane Samuels

Play/Studio Theater

February 13 -17, 2019

LEGALLY BLONDE THE MUSICAL

Book by Heather Hach; Music and Lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benajmin

Musical/Mainstage Theater

March 27-31, 2019

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Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

February 1, 2018 1 comment

Roni Shelley Perez staking her claim as Nebraska’s next “Broadway baby”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon appearing in El Perico

 

Nebraska is far from the theater capital of the world, yet many natives have trod the Broadway boards – from Henry Fonda to Sandy Dennis to Andrew Rannells. Actress-singer Roni Shelley Perez, 21, hopes to join their ranks. The Omaha Marian and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has graced several area stages and is now pursuing her dream in New York City during winter audition season.

This daughter of native Filipino parents has prepared for this all her life.

“I’ve been singing since I was very young. I sang-along to Barney songs ay 3. I started playing guitar at 8,” said Perez.

She also plays the ukelele.

She began performing for family functions and Filipino community gatherings at 11.

“I used to play guitar and sing Filipino covers.”

It earned her spending money.

But performing is, first and foremost, “a healing art” for Perez. “Stories told in songs can be relatable. People going through that same situation need to hear these stories. It’s hard for people to be vulnerable, so to see someone else vulnerable helps them to know it’s okay to feel.,” she said. “Performing arts can be very impactful. It’s a shareable, very much a collective experience.”

In SNAP Productions’ mounting of In the Heights at Omaha South High last spring, Perez’s character Nina mirrored her own life as the eldest child of aspirational immigrant parents in a tight ethnic community.

“Like Nina, there was all this pressure on me growing up to ‘Go, you can do this.’ That role answered a lot of questions for myself.”

She found support as a UNO Goodrich Scholarship Program recipient.

“Goodrich was like a family and definitely one of the best things I took from my undergrad. They believed in me and took a chance on me.”

Her parents were initially dubious when she majored in vocal performance and musical theater.

“Every immigrant parent is hoping for the American dream and I’m going into a field where financial stability is not really a thing. They were scared for me to go into music. But then as soon as opportunities started happening (scholarships, prizes, accolades), they realized, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ I feel like I’ve been doing it for so long and it’s been such a huge part of my life that I can make it into a career.”

The mainstream success Filipina performers enjoy, ala singer-actress Lea Salonga, gives added hope.

“She’s a big influence. She represents the Filipino community in musical theater.”

Filipino actresses have made waves in Hamilton in New York and London. “All these people are just very inspiring.” Then there’s singer-actress Sarah Geronimo. “Growing up, my mom would always play her music and I always looked up to her. She has a beautiful voice. I wanted to sing like her. I wanted to be like her.”

Perez dreams of Broadway but for now her goal is to “just perform professionally” as a working artist. “If it;s there, then I want to turn it into something bigger. I don’t even know what I’m capable of yet.”

It’s doubtful any performer from Neb. has been more prepared at such a young age. She boasts years of high-level training and performing. At 18, she won the part of Mary Magdalene in an Omaha Community Playhouse production of Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s worked with New York stage professionals at the Open Jar Institute, NYU Steinhardt’s Summer Study in Musical Theatre and Shetler Studios’ workshop of Zanna Redux.

“I’ve been going to New York every year now to see where I am ability-wise. I’ve been making connections.”

In Omaha, she got scholarships to Broadway Dreams Foundation Summer Intensive Workshops in 2013 and 2014, studying under and performing with Tony Award nominees and winners. It grew her confidence.

“It showed me what I need to continue working on but also it was like, ‘Hey, if I’m able to perform with them right now, I’ll be able to stand my ground and eventually get to their level too.’ It’s been very encouraging and definitely humbling. Like, I’m clearly not the best, but I can work at it and come to that level.”

She’s participated in master classes through Omaha Performing Arts. The 2016 National Student Auditions competition winner has been recognized by the Playhouse, Theatre Arts Guild and Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Last year, she and a classmate won first place in the Musical Theatre Division of the National Opera Association’s Collegiate Opera Scenes Competition.

She attributes her drive to her hard-working parents, who own their own business.

“I want to give back and work just as hard. I can’t even fathom coming from a third-world country to the United States with poor English and trying to start a family and career. It’s very inspiring and always on my mind as I take on new roles and shows.”

At 20, Perez earned the lead in Heathers at Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre. Her character sings the entire show, so she trained to build vocal stability and stamina. It was both her first lead and first paid acting gig.

“That role came very close to my heart,” she said. “I’m grateful the Blue Barn took a chance on me.”

She returned there this past summer as the title character in Priscilla.

Her most “demanding and rewarding role” came last fall in UNO’s production of Spring Awakening.

“This one really tested my vulnerability and sacrifice. I had to let everything go. That was very hard to do.

Everything I’m doing is giving me a better version of     myself or helping me be my best. There’s always something to learn – always. I love a good challenge.”

Blue Barn artistic director Susan Clement-Toberer, who’s twice directed Perez. is convinced she has what it takes to make it.

“I expect it and I’m exhilarated for the moment when that happens,” Clement-Toberer said. “She was born to do this. She’s got the vision of what she wants to do, and if there are nos along the way, it’s not going to stop her.”

Perez herself said she’s going after it now “because I think I do have what it takes to succeed.”

Follow her at www/ronishelleyperez.com.

Celebrating 90 years, the Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

May 3, 2015 3 comments

When it comes to the arts in Omaha there are maybe a dozen artists and arts organizations with national reputations (Jun Kaneko, Thomas Wilkins, Therman Statom, Alexander Payne, Mauro Fiore, John Beasley, Timothy Schaffert, Opera Omaha, Omaha Theater Company, Film Streams, et cetera) and the Omaha Community Playhouse is the longest lived of these.  Its celebration of 90 years concludes in 2015 and what a nine decade ride its been for this theater from the community, for the community.  Two of the biggest acting names to ever come out of the city, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both got their start there.  But the theater’s legacy is far richer and expansive than these two.  Read my Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) retrospective about this pillar of community theater still going strong today and find out what makes it one of the city’s cultural gems whose reputation extends far beyond the confines of Nebraska.

 

 

 

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Omaha Community Playhouse takes seriously its community theater mission

Theater from the community, for the community celebrates 90 years

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July issue of Omaha Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

Omaha’s love affair with its Playhouse nears a century

During its 2014-2015 season the Omaha Community Playhouse has celebrated nine decades of stage productions and theater arts education. On June 27 the venerable theater is throwing itself a grand Birthday Bash on its east lawn. The free 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. event, organized by the theater’s support group, Act II, will feature live entertainment, headlined by Playhouse favorite Billy McGuigan, a convoy of food trucks and Broadway bingo. All of Omaha is invited to party like it’s 1925.

When the Playhouse put on its first season 90 years ago the theater brought some much needed culture to a wild and woolly city still shaking the dust off its frontier origins. From a humble start motivated by a desire to just put on plays, it became an Omaha institution. Along the way it changed locations, survived a natural disaster, added a professional touring company, expanded facilities and welcomed many unforgettable characters. Hundreds of productions have been performed before millions of patrons.

Bound up in the Playhouse story is an aspiration to bring people together for a common goal of producing entertainment that engages and fosters community. Civic pride has made it Omaha’s theater. Ambition, determination and generosity has taken it to undreamed of heights as America’s largest community theater.

 

 

 Charles Jones, center

“The key figure in the rise of the Playhouse to the top, Charles Jones, arrived in 1974,” says Warren Francke, author of the new book, The Omaha Community Playhouse Story: A Theatre’s Historic Triumph. “The simplest reasons the Playhouse became number one were the things Charles Jones accomplished.” Jones penned a wildly popular adaptation of A Christmas Carol and created the professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Under his leadership the Playhouse’s audience, budget and staff eventually exceeded any community theater in the nation. “His adaptation of A Christmas Carol became, pardon the expression, the cash cow for decades.” That show’s a tradition 39 years and counting now.

Francke says the Caravan brought talent to the Playhouse and carried the theater’s brand nationwide. Several standouts came to Omaha via the troupe. Jerry Longe succeeded Dick Boyd as Scrooge in Carol. Bill Hutson headed the Creighton University drama department and won multiple Fonda-McGuire acting awards.

Jones was also adept at getting donors on board. “Everyone describes him as the most charming Southern gentleman they ever met and he charmed people, not just performers, but the business community and Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben leaders,” says Francke. He says Jones’ ability to get people like Marge Durham, Barbara Ford, Ed Owen and Howard Drew to see philanthropy as crucial to the future of the Playhouse was critical for the ascendancy that took place from 1975 through the mid-1990s.

He says the Playhouse’s stable of memorable personalities is led by the charismatic Jones and the flamboyant director, Bernard Szold, “an ex-football All-American opera cape-wearing character.” Dodie Brando, actor Marlon Brando’s mother, was a passionate if troubled enthusiast.

Early players and echoes of the past

Long woven into the community fabric, the Playhouse developed as the city did. Omaha was a wide open cow town when the Playhouse gave it its only legitimate theater. As Omaha grew, so did the arts. The Playhouse mirrored that evolution. In the span of a decade that saw the Jazz Age give way to the Great Depression, the Playhouse joined two other significant arts organizations in maturing the cultural landscape: the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and the Joslyn Art Museum. All made their mark and remain strong presences today. Of the three, the Playhouse has perhaps been the least stuffy.

Founded as part of a movement to democratize the arts, the Playhouse formed from the community for the community. Even with a professional staff, its grassroots volunteers have always filled out the casts and crews and supported the theater in myriad other ways. Among those figuring prominently in its early success were two families who, against all odds, produced stage and screen icons. Dodie Brando played the lead in the first play, The Enchanted Cottage. Her husband, Marlon Brando Sr., was theater manager. Their son Marlon, who changed the face of acting in New York and Hollywood, was 5 when he and his family moved away, otherwise he would likely have been pulled into the Playhouse orbit the way another future star was, Henry Fonda. Dodie recruited young Hank into the Playhouse fold. He served as a jack-of-all-trades assistant director and as an actor. His sisters Jayne and Harriet were regular players on the fledging theater’s stage.

Not long after Henry went East to pursue an acting career he returned to star opposite a promising ingenue, Dorothy McGuire, in A Kiss for Cinderella (1930). McGuire herself went onto stage and screen stardom. In 1955 she and Fonda, long established names above the title by then, came back to play opposite each other in a benefit production of The Country Girl. Henry’s then 17-year-old daughter, Jane, the future two-time Oscar-winner, made her stage debut. Jane’s brother, Peter, who also became a screen star, continued the Fonda family’s Playhouse legacy – acting there while a University of Omaha student. A cousin, Matt Fonda, later acted there.

The Fondas and McGuire are not the only Playhouse “graduates” who moved onto Broadway, film, television success. Current Playhouse president Tim Schmad’s uncle Howard Fischer used the venue as a stepping-stone to a career as a Broadway stage manager and actor.

The Fonda-McGuire heritage lives on at the Playhouse. Artistic director Hilary Adams says, “Having a pedigree is very beneficial for us. I think anything founded and initiated by people of that caliber and passion – it really is the passion in their work – has a continuing legacy here.”

Adams heard of the Playhouse while working in New York City as a much-in-demand freelance director, but she only learned about its distinguished past once she started researching it. She appreciates being part of an organization so intertwined with its community and one that boasts such a long, colorful history. “Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater. That’s huge. Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts . That immediately stood out for me – its history and the way it was founded as part of a desire for a community-based organization to bring culture to Omaha as part of the Little Theater Movement.”

“Ninety years, I mean, that’s astonishing for a theater…Theaters fight for their survival and the fact it could survive for that long not only speaks volumes about the work the theater is doing but also about the community support and engagement of the community in the arts… –Hilary Adams

 Dodie Brando

The only show in town

Ex-associate artistic director Susie Baer Collins says the Playhouse parlayed that pedigree into a reputation as “the premiere place for local theatrical entertainment.” She says it’s remained a considerable force even as other theatre companies have put down roots and professional touring productions now regularly come to town. “It was a little scary for all of us the first time The Lion King came to the Orpheum Theater and stayed for more than a month. I wasn’t sure if the Playhouse could survive that kind of stellar competition and still find its audience, but somehow we did. We tried to remain relevant.”

She says the theater’s knack for putting on stellar shows, particularly musicals. grew “in the heyday of Charles Jones,” adding, “He was extremely committed to strong production values and the Playhouse gained a reputation for wonderful scenery, lighting and costumes that enhanced every production.”

Doing a Playhouse show meant you’d arrived. “It was like if you got on at the Playhouse then that meant you were doing something theatrically in the city,” says Playhouse veteran Camille Metoyer Moten. “I mean, even now it’s still a big deal.” “It’s definitely a big deal,” says fellow stage veteran Elaine Jabenis. “It opened up a whole new world for me. I met people I ordinarily would not have met,” including Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda and Dorothy McGuire when Jabenis worked backstage for The Country Girl. “There’s a lot of people I met and worked with who helped pull me up because of their talent.”

Jabenis says it’s no accident the Playhouse has held the community enthralled for going on a century. “Audiences just keep coming back for that magic, for that moment to escape their own life and to see what happens in other lives. It is absolutely magic.” The Playhouse annually nets more local Theatre Arts Guild awards than all its competition combined.

All for one, one for all

Year after year, generation after generation, the Playhouse, no matter the need or challenge, has always found the necessary community backing because it’s a vital, touchstone place for people. “You know, it’s a funny thing about feeling vital,” says Jabenis, whose first Playhouse role in a 1952 production of Father of the Bride was in the old 40th and Davenport site. “When they announced plans to build the present theater I was on the committee to help raise money. I went house to house. I was never that bold a person. I was really pretty shy. But I believed in it, I really did. I was so anxious for it to happen.”

Jabenis says her eagerness to pitch-in reflects a communal desire “to make Omaha the best in everything we do,” adding, “It’s kind of a hunger and it’s something we’ve pushed for.” She also starred in the first production, Say Darling, at the current site in 1959, taking the stage mere minutes after hosting a live remote for local television.

“It’s like the perfect storm or something,” says Metoyer Moten, whose first role there was as the title character in Evita (1986). “You had the people who started it off that had this dream and these high expectations. Somehow they were able to impart that to the next generation, who had that same passion. I don’t know how that happens. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere and people are hungry for culture. We don’t have mountains or the ocean, so we turn to ourselves to give that thing we can bring, which is artistic. “It’s a good common cause.”

This sense of getting behind something is not so different than Omaha’s embrace of the College World Series. It’s what happens when something springs from the community and is nurtured by it. The community theater model, dependent as it is on amateurs or volunteers, leads to misconceptions the Playhouse fights against.

“There’s been times over the years where there’s been debate whether community should be in our name,” says president Tim Schmad. “We hear that newcomers to town see community in our name and they immediately think of a renovated 70-seat church space with productions not the quality we think ours are.”

But Schamd points out community is part of the theater’s DNA and its volunteers work side by side with professionals to create work that he and artistic director Hilary Adams, a veteran of New York City theater, say compares favorably with Broadway. “We feel community definitely needs to be in our name because of the status we have in Omaha and the fact we rely on Omahans to put on our product for the most part,” Schmad says. “Our job then is to get those newcomers here just once. If we can’t get them back that’s our fault but we think if we expose them to our product they’ll understand why community definitely is a part of who we are.”

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do.”–Hilary Adams

Community engagement

Before Adams ever started working at the Playhouse she was impressed by what she found on visits there during the search process to replace longtime artistic director Carl Beck.

“It was really about community engagement – that’s what I immediately saw. And then I discovered not only do they support the Playhouse in Omaha but they support the arts in Omaha.”

Since joining the staff in mid-2014 Adams, a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Director of a Play, has been bowled over by the Playhouse’s singular approach to community theater.

“The quality of work is astonishing. I think it’s a real hybrid situation that’s unique to community theaters in that we have a paid staff and everything we do supports our volunteer actors, with the exception of the Caravan. What we do have here is really high quality and high support for volunteer actors, and the staff here is incredibly talented and experienced. We treat the people who walk in our doors the same or better as Equity actors or people who do this for a living get treated.

“Volunteers are at the heart of the Playhouse. We have more than 1,000 in a season. They’re involved onstage, backstage, in the box office, as ushers, answering phones, on the board, in Act II. The public is everywhere in this building.”

Her first exposure to the Playhouse in action was at a performance of Les Miserables. The seamless blending of community she witnessed that night is what she’s come to expect. “I saw all that in operation backstage, And in the front of the house at intermission for Les Mis the entire audience stood up and cheered and I still get like goose bumps thinking about this because almost the entire cast was fellow community members.” The outpouring of love happened again at curtain call and once again at the meet-and-greet in the lobby, as community members in the audience, the cast and crew expressed appreciation for each other. This mutual admiration happens nearly every show.

Schmad grew up with this sense of community. His aunt Margaret Fischer saw every production from the theater’s start until her death. Many of her friends acted on stage there and she and the rest of the family were always in the audience to encourage them. Schmad says many Omaha families claim similar Playhouse legacies. Whether attending shows and classes or volunteering onstage or backstage, the Playhouse becomes a multi-generational tradition. He says it’s not uncommon for someone to start there as a child and to either continue or resume ties in adulthood, often getting their own children involved. “That’s really symbolic of what the Playhouse is,” he says. It goes back to community being the basis for everything there.

“That is very unique. It’s all part of this cycle of “bringing theater with and for communities,” says Adams. It jives with her own theater interests, which is why she left New York for here. “I was looking for a place where I could combine the professional theater experience I had with the skills and focus of my master’s program, which is in applied theater – using theater for social change, transformation and education. I really wanted to merge those two parts of theater. I also came from a community theater background as a young person. From the time I was really small I was also going to New York and seeing shows. So I’ve always sort of been in that hybrid.”

“We learned that this place is bigger than all of us.” –Tim Schmad

 

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  • Camille Metoyer Moten

Training ground and professional environment

Baer Collins says “The performers may be volunteers, but they’re surrounded by professionalism. A great number of the designers and directors, along with the music director, choreographer, technicians, carpenters, costumers, et cetera. are employees of the Playhouse and all are committed to making each show the very best it can be.” That expertise and care shows up on stage.”The Playhouse’s professionalism continues to have a reputation among the theatre community,” she says.

“Actors who may have significant experience or training are often interested in performing at the Playhouse as a volunteer because it strives for such high-quality and its shows have such a professional look. “It was always a thrill when an audience member would say they thought the actors were professional.”

Metoyer Moten, who starred in last spring’s production of the musical Little Women, says it’s a regular occurrence, “You hear it all the time at the (post-show) meet-and-greets where people say, ‘I saw the same show on Broadway and this is way better.’ Ot they ask, ‘Where are you people from?’ It’s such a professional performance they don’t think it could be local. They think it’s a cast that’s been brought in from someplace else, when the truth is I may live around the corner from them.”

Metoyer Moten says the professionals employed in key positions at the Playhouse “guide mentor” volunteers to do professional-level work. “They have high expectations. It’s all about expectations. I’ve worked in quite a few theaters and I still feel like when I’m there I have the most professional treatment.”

“You feel more secure because you know they’re really pulling out the very best in you and you’re making it the very best you can,” Jabenis says.

Amid the bright lights and standing ovations, its easy to forget the Playhouse is a training ground for people of any age and experience level to get a top-notch theater immersion and education.

“As a community theatre, education is at the core of everything we do,” Adams says. “We have a very strong education and outreach program that includes adult and youth classes, youth summer camp intensives, in-school workshops and residencies, after-school programs, a Theatre Technology Apprenticeship Program, an alternative programming series and go-beyond the show programming.”

She’s proud of the two-year apprenticeship program in partnership with Metropolitan Community College and registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. “Our apprentices run a lot of the shows backstage. They are supervised, supported and mentored by our paid staff every step of the way. So here you have a professional house that looks like what you’d have on Broadway or high off-Broadway or high regional theater, with all the accoutrements, bells and whistles, and the people working that are this really unique combination, from teens on up, of people really new at it and people really experienced. “It’s an incredible program. It’s the only one like it in the country.”

Apprentice grads have gone on to work for big-time theatrical troupes, theater festivals and network television. The Playhouse is also where young talent gets its start.

Baer Collins says, “We worked very hard to bring young people into our shows, in particular A Christmas Carol. That yearly production became an amazing training ground for children to learn about the discipline and art of performing onstage. I worked with some amazing young people who grew into outstanding performers. They start with learning to smile onstage and to hang up their costumes and end up playing amazing roles like Annie in Annie or Wendy in Peter Pan.” John Lloyd Young made it all the way to Broadway, where he headlined the cast of Jersey Boys, winning a Tony for his efforts. Others who’ve gone onto stardom include Terry Kiser and two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz.

Two Caravan alums who found fame returned in triumphant roles: Kevyn Morrow, a veteran of the Broadway and London stage, headlined the cast of Ragtime in 2006; and opera star Greg Ryerson anchored South Pacific in 2008. Some Omaha natives who made it big before acting at the Playhouse have returned to play there, including Equity performer John Beasley, who starred opposite Elaine Jabenis in 1996’s Driving Miss Daisy. Former Omaha mayor and congressman Glenn Cunningham and film-TV producer William Dozier are among the notables who acted there.

 

 

Image result for omaha community playhouse

 

 

The show must go on

Hilary Adams is impressed the Playhouse has consistently dared to do provocative work. “They really came out of the gate very strong with innovative productions even in the ’20s. They were doing wonderful work here.”

Historian Warren Francke says, “Almost from the start the Playhouse was willing to tackle Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie about a prostitute. When they did controversial plays then they were defended by two board members who were clergymen, one a rabbi and the other a Unitarian minister.” Francke discovered a “wonderful story nearly lost to history” that illustrates the pressure the Playhouse sometimes felt. “A man wrote a play about Brigham Young and Bernard Szold, the then-Playhouse director, knew him and together they conspired to pick up the play. Szold went to his artist friend Grant Wood, who’d just done “American Gothic,” to do the scenic design. That’s overshadowed by the fact the night before opening the Mormon Church got the president of Union Pacific Railroad and their general counsel to convince the Playhouse board to drop 14 of Young’s 17 wives in the cast.”

Adams says community theater serves so many tastes that devising a slate of plays “is about finding the right balance and challenging people but not so far that they get upset with us. For 2015-2016 we’ve created a diverse season of offerings from new American playwrights rising in prominence as well as better known pieces. The season mixes genres and styles and includes two experimentations in form.”

Controversy over content still happens. In the 2003-2004 season profane language in the main stage production of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife elicited such negative feedback that Schmad says “it showed us how we shouldn’t mess with their Playhouse.” “We learned a lesson from that,” he says, namely that the main stage Hawks Theatre is better suited to tamer shows. “We did lose a lot of memberships because of it. Hopefully. we got some back. They sent a message. It was kind of ironic that our first show in the Hawks the next year was Hair,” the nudie musical about free love. “It did fine.”

Playhouse leadership has come under fire, too. ‘When we had some public issues in the past I learned just how important the Playhouse is to the community,” Schmad says. In 2009 friction between the administrative and artistic sides made news. “It was something at that time that needed to be discussed and it was and we came out much better because of that. We learned that this place is bigger than all of us. We all came to that conclusion.” Schmad says the upshot of that has been better communication and a clearer division of responsibilities. “The way we’ve structured it now, which is different than a lot of community theaters, is that I’m here to do the administrative things. though I do also oversee the artistic side. But I leave the management of the artistic up to them. I have confidence and trust in what they do.”

“When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” –Tim Schmad

 

Tim Schmad

 

Omaha’s theater

Schmad views himself as the steward of a valued community resource. “When I first came here I said i want to be the caretaker of this place but I also want to move it forward. I feel responsible for this place. I know how important it is to people. In my decision-making I certainly have to take care of my staff and the people who come to the shows, the donors, the board members. There are many nights where I’m awake at three in the morning, but that comes with the territory.”

As for what’s next, he says, “We’re looking at the future, we’re looking at strategic planning, and that’s very important to us. It’s a combination of what we need to do administratively and artistically. There’s no question that selling tickets, donor support and remaining relevant to the community is extremely important. “Right now I think we’re in good hands. Our board is good, our foundation is strong. I’m really proud of our staff. We’ve got some real go-getters that know what they’re doing and are very talented and that love theater and love the Playhouse. “It’s not all roses but I’m kind of proud of where we are.”

A clear indication of the theater’s continued popularity is that some hit shows in the last decade broke all box-office records. Through all the Playhouse’s needs – realizing a new home in 1959, repairing structural damage from a 1975 tornado, supporting a major addition in 1986, building the endowment – Omaha’s responded. “We’ve been very fortunate the community’s come forward to support any special needs,” he says. “We are always trying to improve ourselves. Our facility looks nice but we’ve got 50-some years in this building and so we definitely have some improvements that need to be made, especially in staging and equipment that’s pretty old. So we’re in that mode right now in trying to really improve what we have.”

He expects, not takes for granted, the community will respond again. “They’ve always been there.” Everyone from philanthropists like Howard and Rhonda Hawks to season subscribers and casual theatergoers. “That’s what makes Omaha what it is. The community is proud of the arts and culture in Omaha. When it comes to the Playhouse, a lot of people have worked here and given a lot of their life to this place.” They’ve given their time, talent and treasure, too. “There’s a real sense of ownership that comes with that.” That’s why it’s called the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.

 
 
 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald; Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

March 12, 2014 4 comments

 

 

Sisters of song: Kathy Tyree connects with Ella Fitzgerald

Omaha singer feels kinship to her stage alter ego

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Ella, the dramatic musical revue of the life of American songbook diva Ella Fitzgerald at the Omaha Community Playhouse, reveals the anguish behind the legendary performer’s sweet voice and carefree persona.

Call it kismet or karma, but the woman portraying her is veteran Omaha chanteuse Kathy Tyree, whose ebullient, easy-going public face has similarly disguised her own torment.

The high points surely outweigh the low points in their respective lives but Tyree’s experienced, much as Ella did, her share of failed relationships, including two divorces, and myriad financial struggles.

“I’m in a much better place now,” Tyree says.

Known for her bright spirit and giving heart, Tyree’s usually worked a regular job to support her and her son. Currently, she’s program manager at Omaha Healthy Start. A few years ago she used all her savings and 401K to launch her own production company and after a rousing start one bad show broke the business.

The enigmatic Fitzgerald died in 1996 at age 79 with few outside her inner circle knowing her private travails because her handlers sanitized her regal image as the First Lady of Song.

As Tyree researched Fitzgerald’s life for the role, which director Susie Baer Collins offered without an audition, she identified with what Ella did to separate, if not always reconcile, her private and public sides.

“She was very weak and very strong at the same time,” Tyree says of Ella. “She had all these secrets and these hurts, all this internal pain, but she always held it together. She was at the top, she was international, she was the goddess of scat.”

Fitzgerald was respected for her dignified demeanor, the purity of her well-modulated voice and her perfect elocution, though some criticized her for being too precise, too pristine, too white. All of it helped to popularize jazz.

Tyree says the adoration that flowed Ella’s way was due to her talent but also to “how she carried herself as a black woman,” adding, “She wasn’t Lady Day (Billie Holiday), she wasn’t drinking and popping pills and going through all these changes publicly. That takes a lot.”

Before getting the role Tyree was lukewarm about the singer. Her favorite female artists were Diana Ross, Patti Labelle and Cher. After months listening to the Ella canon, Tyree says ,”I have a completely different appreciation for her. Now I am a fan. This woman was a walking instrument. She could do just amazing things with her voice.”

 

 

 

 

Because the script peels back the layers of myth around Fitzgerald’s antiseptic image, Tyree now feels connected to the real woman behind the silky voice and prim and proper mask

“There’s so much more to her than was allowed to be shared with the world. She definitely has a story, she definitely was singing from a place of pain. In rehearsals I began seeing a lot of the parallels between us.”

Both grew up fatherless and both lost a sister. By their mid-teens both were mixed up in the wrong crowd. Just as performing saved Fitzgerald, it gave the “rebellious” Tyree a purpose and discipline she’d lacked. She began singing in church, at Morningstar Baptist, where she still attends today, and at Omaha Technical High School. Outside of her faith, performing is Tyree’s spiritual sanctuary.

“For me theater and music are my therapy but from everything I’ve learned about Ella it was more like her drug. For me it takes me to another place and it gives me a peace and a calm. I leave everything outside. It’s like this is a whole other world.”

Just as performing helped Tyree cope with insecurities, she guesses it did so for Ella, whose character in the show says, “I’m always OK when I’m on the stage. When I’m not working, I turn off, I get lost.”

Tyree’s usual reticence about her own turmoil isn’t to protect a well-manufactured facade, but a personal credo she inherited.

“I shared with Susie (Baer Collins) in a read-through that in my family we have a rule – you never look like what you’re going through. Though I’ve been through a lot, I’ve had a lot of heartbreak and heartache, I never look like what I’m going through, and that was Ella.

“It’s a pride thing. I was raised by strong black women. These women had to work hard. Nobody had time for that crying and whining stuff.

It was, ‘Straighten your face up, get yourself together, keep it moving.'”

She says what she doesn’t like about Ella is “the very same thing I don’t like in myself,” adding, “Ella didn’t have enough respect for herself to know what she deserved. She didn’t have those examples, she didn’t have a father. People always say little boys need their fathers, well little girls need their fathers. too. They need somebody to tell them they’re beautiful. They deserve somebody in their life that isn’t going to abuse them. When you don’t have that you find yourself hittin’ and missin’, trying to figure it out, searching for that acceptance and that love. That’s very much our shared story.”

That potent back story infuses Tyree’s deeply felt interpretations of  Fitzgerald standards. Tyree’s singing doesn’t really sound anything like her stage alter ego but she does capture her heart and soul.

 

 

 

 

Tyree, a natural wailer, has found crooning ballad and scat-styles to conjure the spirit of Ella. Tyree makes up for no formal training and the inability to read music with perfect pitch and a highly adaptable voice.

“My voice is very versatile and my range is off the charts,” Tyree says matter-of-factly. “I can sing pretty much anything you put in front of me because it’s all in my ear. I’ve been blessed because they (music directors) can play it one time and I get it.”

She considers herself a singer first and an actress second, but in Ella she does both. She overcame initial doubts about the thick book she had to learn for the part.

“It’s a lot of lines and a lot of acting and a lot of transitions because I’m narrating her life from 15 years-old to 50.

But after months of rehearsal Tyree’s doing what she feels anointed to do in a space where she’s most at home.

“This is where I get to be lost and do what I do best, this is where I don’t miss. I think it’s because it’s coming from a sincere place. My number one goal is that everybody in the audience leaves blessed. I want to pour something out of me into them. I want ’em to leave on a high. It’s not about me when I’m on stage. This is God-given and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it to deliver.”

This popular performer with a deep list of musical theater credits (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Beehive) feels she’s inhabiting the role of a lifetime and one that may finally motivate her to stretch herself outside Omaha.

“I’m still like blown away they asked me to come do this show. I still have goals and dreams and things I want to do. As you go through your journey in life there’s things that hinder those goals and dreams and they cause you to second guess and doubt yourself – that maybe I don’t have what it takes. I’m hoping this will instill in me the courage to just go for it and start knocking on some of those doors.”

Ella continues through March 30. For times and tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunity playhouse.com.

Art imitates life for “Having Our Say” stars, sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and their brother Ray Metoyer

February 5, 2014 1 comment

Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten.  A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of  the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century.  The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own.  In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here.  My story about this art  imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.

 

The Reader Jan. 30 - Feb. 5, 2014

 

Art imitates life for “Having Our Say” stars, sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and their brother Ray Metoyer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.

The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.

Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.

“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.

“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.

“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.

“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”

The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”

Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”

Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.

“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”

Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.

“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying   themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”

As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.

Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.

The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.

“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”

Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.

The events made an impression on Camille.

“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”

 

 

Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten

 

Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.

“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”

The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.

“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.

Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.

Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”

Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.

The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.

“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”

On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.

“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.

The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.

Matched set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck share life and career based in theater at Omaha Community Playhouse

February 28, 2013 3 comments

An Omaha asset know far and wide outside the city and the state of Nebraska is the Omaha Community Playhouse.  With the possible exception of the Joslyn Art Museum, it owns the richest history of any Omaha arts and cultural organization.  I mean, we’re talking serious pedigree here.  So it’s no small thing to hold a ranking position on the artistic staff there.  That a former husband and wife hold the artistic director and associate artistic director posts there and have done so for many years intrigued me and the result of my curiosity is the following story soon to appear in the New Horizons newspaper.   Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins have been making theater together for decades and they’ve gone right on working at the Playhouse even after their divorce.  They’ve made this unusual situation work and after the 2013-2014 season they will finally be going their separate ways, but there’s a lot of theater ahead of them yet.  If you’re a theater fan then check out my many theater stories on this blog, including a history piece on the Omaha Community Playhouse and features related to the Brigit St. Brigit, Blue Barn, John Beasley and other theaters.  You’ll also find quite a bit about the Great Plains Theatre Conference.

 

Matched set: Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck Share life and career based in theater at Omaha Community Playhouse

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in the New Horizons

 

A shared passion for theater has kept Susan Baer Collins and Carl Beck joined at the hip despite countless moves and significant life changes.

If they were a production, Collins-Beck would be a sensation for their show-must-go-on endurance. A year-and-a-half from now their decades-long run as a dedicated theater team – he’s artistic director and she’s associate artistic director at the Omaha Community Playhouse – will end when they retire from those positions and they finally go their separate ways.

Their love story is not just with dramatics. Back in the early 1970s they fell head over heels for each other while working in the theater – they were even introduced on stage. They began living together, traveling far and wide pursuing their dream, including two stays in New York City, where they made audition rounds trying to break in on Broadway. There and at other stops they worked regular jobs to support their stage aspirations. With nothing tying them down, these theater vagabonds went wherever the work took them.

Beck recalls, “We were exceptionally lucky along the way. We had connections that kept taking us to a different step. We remained very open. We were constantly moving, sometimes three or four times in a year, to different cities. So everything had to fit in a Volkswagen Beetle. You lived a very strange life but it was always interesting.”

They’ve performed in every conceivable situation, from grand venues to under a leaking circus tent in a driving rainstorm to a cattle auction barn to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where one group of inmates was on their best behavior while another group heckled the performers the entire time.

Dinner theaters became their mainstay.

“One of our trips took us to Atlanta where we were in a fantastic theater that did nothing but big musicals – Hello Dolly, Fiddler on the Roof,” says Collins.

That Southern metropolis became home when Turner Broadcasting hired them to work in front of and behind the camera for its WTBS superstation.

On far right are Carl Beck and Susan Baet Collins, ©netnebraska.org

“Maybe the biggest departure was an opportunity for us to write and perform on a children’s television show for Turner Broadcasting called Superstation Funtime. I was on the show and Carl was a writer,” says Collins. “We worked for three years, in and out of production of this show and in other positions at the network.”

TV was a decided change of pace for the theater artists.

“There wasn’t the same degree of comfort, of knowledge, of want to work in television as there was in theater,” says Beck. “I just always felt I would be scrambling to catch up in television, but my roots, my base is more theater-driven, and that’s what we would both prefer to be doing.”

Ironically, Collins has gone on to do extensive work as a voice talent for  network TV children’s shows (Street Sharks, Archie’s Weird Mysteries, Liberty’s Kids, Horseland, Strawberry Shortcake, Dino Squad). She also does narration for commercials, documentaries and corporate videos.

Perhaps the couple’s most memorable performance came for British royalty.

“We wrote and performed a live show for the Prince of Wales at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta,” Beck explains.”Prince Charles came there as part of a U.S. tour. We had just opened a comedy improv group there with other Nebraskans and were kind of a new topic.”

Atlanta rolled out the red carpet for the royal. “I ended up as the master of ceremonies,” Beck says. “Gladys Knight and the Pips were the big entertainment.” Collins appeared in a sketch quizzing Charles on his knowledge of Southern slang. She got to meet him backstage and was charmed by his droll flattery.

Theater is the couple’s life. Upon marrying in 1977 they followed, in their own humble way, the tradition of more famous husband and wife stage teams such as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne or Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

The couple have a son together, Ben Beck, who is a playwright and actor in Omaha. Though Collins and Beck divorced in 1996, they’ve remained friends and colleagues, managing to amicably, successfully work side by side at the Playhouse. Their parallel careers long ago brought them there. Beck came first. When Superstation Funtime was cancelled he “jobbed in” to direct for the Playhouse’s touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.

“Then we got the call that (then-executive director) Charles Jones was looking for an associate director to help him because the Playhouse then was undergoing a large expansion, so we moved up there with a 6-month old baby and I became associate director,” says Beck. “That was 1983.”

When Jones suffered a stroke in ’96 Beck became artistic director and Collins associate artistic director. They’ve remained in those positions ever since.

“We feel absolutely incredibly lucky to have stumbled into the positions that we have that allow us to live a very pleasant, normal life in a community like Omaha being able to make our living doing something we both feel very passionate about,” says Beck.

Between them, they helm most of the theater’s mainstage shows, particularly the big musicals that are the theater’s stock-in-trade moneymakers.

Their professional alliance has endured dating, marriage and divorce. “We’ve been joined at the hip professionally most of our lives. It’s kind of unusual,” says Collins. When their wedded bliss was no more they looked past their differences to focus on what was best for their son and their career. “It couldn’t work any other way,” she says. “We celebrate holidays together, we’ve taken trips together.”

She’s been married 13 years to an attorney from Norfolk, Neb., Dennis Collins, who performs at the Playhouse and has been directed by her ex.

“It’s an odd little family, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Susan says.

Having lived and worked together so long, the pair connect deeply.

“It’s definitely a relationship you cultivate, especially after a divorce,” says Beck. “You realize the important things. We certainly don’t want to make anyone we work with or are friends with choose sides. Our single greatest focus was to continue to raise our son and both be very much a part of his life. No one was going anywhere.”

Because they’ve shared a life together, the two artists enjoy a bond that goes well beyond what most associates share.

“We obviously do know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and have grown very comfortable over a period of time with being able to support or cover one another or when one’s fired come to the rescue,” says Beck.

They had each others’ backs in 2009 when Beck was asked to resign by Playhouse president Tim Schmad in the midst of a budget crisis and Collins promptly resigned to show her support for her ex. That riff with management was resolved when Playhouse supporters expressed indignation at Beck’s dismissal and Schmad had a change of heart. The artists patched up their differences with administrators and Beck and Collins resumed their posts.

The pair perform similar but separate roles at the Playhouse, where they form a conspiracy of hearts and minds that is all about mutual support.

“We rarely work on the same project together,” says Collins, “What we do is kind of go to bat together in front of the board or executive committee for what we think is necessary to maintain or add to our productions here.”

Just as the couple found enough common ground after their divorce to remain friends and colleagues they found a path to come back to the Playhouse after  that celebrated flap with their bosses. Healing the wounds from that severing was crucial if the Playhouse were to thrive.

“It was a very intense period for absolutely everyone,” recalls Beck. “Those of us that were most affected by it came to realize this was very detrimental to the Playhouse and hurting the institution and that, differences aside, we all very much loved this organization. And for that reason we sat down and started coming to terms with one another because the institution was much greater than the individuals involved and the incident that happened.”

Collins says, “Everybody came bearing an olive branch all at the same time.”

Still, there was an awkward feeling-out period.

“Everyone had to find their way after that point and very carefully move forward because you were trying to absorb different people’s attitudes and what had taken place,” says Beck. “It was a gradual process.”

A direct benefit from all of that was that the division that previously existed between the art and business sides of the Playhouse was eliminated. Instead of operating independently as they did before, with little discussion or appreciation of what the other did, the two sides began communicating.

When the couple first joined the Playhouse the artistic and financial decisions were made by one person, Charles Jones. Eventually, those duties were divided among different people. It just made sense.

“I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot more collaborative decision making that happens then when we first came,” says Collins. “At the time artistic and financial decisions were pretty much managed by the same person. A lot of theaters operated in that way until they started splitting the responsibilities.”

But over time the two camps became isolated and mistrustful, all of which contributed to the 2009 fall-out.

Collins says, “When we first came back from that Tim (Schmad) and Carl and I would have at least weekly meetings, which is something we’d never done. We reported to each other a lot and you could watch both parties start to see what life was like for an arts administrator in the middle of a big recession.”

She says where before she and Beck never gave much thought to money matters they now routinely ask themselves, “How do we help justify the budget?” She adds, “And now he (Schmad) sees what is really necessary for all this programming to take place. It’s admirable to watch because before we were seeing the other side as the enemy. Before the ‘dust up’ I never went to a financial committee meeting or a board meeting. I go to everything now. It helps you see what we’re facing.”

Part of what the Playhouse faces is a changed environment in which it is no longer the only show in town.

“When we first came if you wanted to see a big musical in Omaha you went to the Playhouse,” says Collins. “Now you can see a first national touring production of Memphis or see The Lion King sit down here for six weeks. That never happened before. There are more theaters now, too.”

She frets that what makes the Playhouse special is lost on some.

“There are people I worry who don’t see the value in nurturing this part of the art form with theater as an avocation. I want to keep in everybody’s brain how important this centrally located community theater is to the nurturing of new talent and new audiences.”

The theater is having to adapt to stay relevant.

“Audiences are changing,” says Beck. “The old rules don’t necessarily apply anymore. People don’t buy season memberships the way they used to.

There are so many more options for their arts dollars today. So we’re becoming less membership oriented and more reliant on single ticket sales.”

To better appeal to different audiences the Playhouse now promotes a slate of traditional and nontraditional offerings.

He says, “We’ve rebranded our theater as having two very separate spaces. We call it, ‘Find Your Stage.’ We have a more traditional mainstage theater and an edgier, more contemporary theater, the Drew.”

Collins says a big challenge is getting capacity seating up in the mainstage.

A Christmas Carol

Theater’s been the glue that’s kept the couple together and so it shouldn’t be a surprise the two met as actors with the Nebraska Repertory Theater in Lincoln. She’d moved with her family to Lincoln after growing up in Detroit, Mich. and other places. She was a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater major. He gravitated there from his hometown of Shreveport, La. by way of theater studies at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tulsa.

After stints with dinner theaters and rep companies around the nation and that three-year hiatus in TV, they ended up back in Neb. and here is where they’ve stayed. Collins and Beck have faithfully continued the Playhouse’s rich tradition that extends back to its 1924 founding and that includes notable alums Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire and state of the art facilities.

The Playhouse has become their theater home.

Each feels they’re exactly where they’re meant to be but after giving so much for so long they’ve also put in motion their leaving the Playhouse at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Their rationale for parting ways is simply wanting to move on to do other things. Then there’s the fatigue factor of time and energy spent mounting shows. Announcing their resignations so far in advance has as much to do with their love for the institution and giving it time to find the right replacements as it does leaving on their own terms. After all, they’re in good health and they don’t want to wait and be forced out due to illness.

They make no bones about what a special place the Playhouse is and the special place it holds in their lives.

“It’s a long history,” says Beck. “We came as actors. We then grew into what we became. We had a deep strong appreciation for its strengths and an understanding of its weaknesses. Moving into management and directing positions we were able to maintain the strengths we always appreciated and went to work on things we felt we could improve. It’s been embraced by the Omaha community for 89 years and when you work here as we have you become entrenched in the history of the organization.”

On the other hand, he says, “we’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve been living in a rehearsal hall a long time. You reach a point where you realize new blood is a very positive thing and a transition for the Playhouse is a growth.”

Collins says, We’ve seen a lot of people go out of here on walkers or in ambulances. We didn’t want to be those people who say with a last gasp, ‘I have one more show in me…’ Because as much as this is what we love to do rarely do you have a day away from the Playhouse, You’re here days in the office but then you’re back from 6 to 10 o’clock in rehearsal. Weekends, forget it. It kind of runs your time.”

In an unusual move, they announced their impending departure in August 2012, a full two years before their resignations take effect.

“We were having discussions about it probably two-and-a-half years ago and we both came to the conclusion we were both ready to do it and doing it at the same time made a lot of sense,” Beck says.

Besides, he adds, it’s time to do something else and to structure your life in a different way. We’re both wide open. I have a lot of family in the South and in all likelihood I will relocate and spend more time around a beach.”

Collins, meanwhile, intends staying in Omaha, where she’s planted deep roots as an actress, director, playwright and voice talent.

“I probably won’t leave Omaha and I will be a part of the theater community but it’ll be more my timetable and I’ll pick my projects. Carl and I in these positions take on the most potential income-producing projects of the season, which means we do the big musicals with the mega casts. Back when I first came here I was more like our resident director Amy Lane where I would get to do the funky quirky little plays in the small theater that we know aren’t going to make money. It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to play with some great piece of writing in a small room with seven or eight actors.

“I would like to do that and I would like to do a little more performing.”

She’d also like to write more. She and her late partner, composer Jonathan Coles, wrote three widely performed musicals for young people.

 An inevitable consequence of announcing their retirement so early, she says, “is people are thinking we’re retiring tomorrow. We kind of get, ‘Are you still here?'” A big part of giving such long notice was affording the Playhouse ample time to find successors who are the right fit for unusual jobs at what is a singular institution. Once their replacements are found, Collins and Beck fully expect to help train or advise them in order to ease that transition.

“We know what’s involved. It’s just a very different thing, so you have to have knowledge of the place,” says Collins. “So we’re hoping whoever comes in can give us time before he or she just kicks right in with their first production.”

Not only are there multiple productions to mount each season there’s the great elephant in the room that must be constantly fed – the Playhouse’s annual mega production of A Christmas Carol. Besides its long mainstage run in Omaha, it’s performed by two companies of the Nebraska Theatre Caravan in tours that take the show to the east and west coasts.

A Christmas Carol is a huge component of why we are able to sustain          ourselves. It’s both tour and resident production,” says Collins, “and it isn’t like you could come in tomorrow and just direct the show.”

“It’s a machine,” says Beck. “We rehearse three productions at the same time. You come in at 9 a.m. and you leave at 10 at night, juggling all three, and the intricacies of that.”

“It has a legacy. There’s an integrity about this production,” Collins says.

That production is the adaptation that the late Charles Jones gifted the theater with after his arrival there. Jones, a consummate Southern gentleman who oozed charm, was one of the most charismatic figures the couple has had the pleasure of knowing.

“Charles Jones had an amazing capacity to talk anybody into anything, be it corporate donors, be it actors, whomever. Charles was an impresario. Working for him, working around him was daily an education,” says Beck.

“There’s the kind of teacher who takes you down to nothing and then lets you try to stand up again and I was never able to respond to that very well,” says Collins, “but I have always thrived under someone who says, ‘I think you can do anything’ or ‘I think you can do more with than you know,’ and that was always Charles. When I first came here he gave me lots of encouragement as a performer and then came a day he decided I should start directing and I hadn’t directed anything outside a class. I’ll always be grateful to Charles.”

Education is a major aspect of what Collins and Beck do whether directing a show or conducting workshops and classes. By its nature, Beck says, community theater means working with casts filled with people who have dramatic training or stage experience as well as those who’ve never appeared in a play “and your job is to get them all to the same level.” He adds, “You’re constantly learning, constantly starting from square one with each project and each group of people. You’re dealt a different hand every time you go off.”

“In every cast I would love to have one very young, inexperienced, eager, talented high school student because they are so genuinely excited to be there and they become the heart and soul of an entire company,” he says. “You can bring a person along and nurture someone. I’ve had two this year.”

Similarly, Collins says “it’s the process” of creating theater she most enjoys.

“It’s going to that audition and your heart’s kind of in the pit of your throat because you’re not sure you’re going to find the people you’re looking for.” More often than not she does. “We get criticized for casting the same people but I challenge anybody to name a play where we haven’t introduced someone new to the stage.”

Discovering new talent is a side bonus.

“Julia McKenzie in All Night Strut is my latest, Oh-my-gosh, where-did-you- come-from? find. This young woman that none of us knew just showed up at our auditions and she’s proven to be a phenomenal dancer, with personality out her toes and she can sing, too. We have been nothing but thrilled with her since the day she walked in.

“There was a little girl we cast long ago in A Christmas Carol named Caroline Iliff. I knew her mother, who said, ‘Oh, my daughter’s auditioning for A Christmas Carol,’ and in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, yeah, who isn’t it?’ And this little girl was darling and we put her in the company and over the years she became such a poised, amazing, capable young performer. She ended up playing Annie in the musical Annie. She went on to play my Wendy in Peter Pan and developed this impeccable British accent.

“Now she’s a grown-up person playing Belle in A Christmas Carol and off in Texas studying music theater and I feel, ‘That’s my baby.'”

Collins and Beck also enjoy immersing themselves in the world of a play.

“You do a play about Helen Keller or Ann Landers or the music of the 1930s and 40s and you learn a whole bunch of stuff. Each play is its own little being,” she says. “I want to steep myself with as much information as I can get about the subject matter. Then you try to see it in your head and then some actor comes along and maybe changes your mind or takes your suggestion and runs with it or takes it further than you imagined. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Beck says, “Every two to three months you’re faced with a new set of challenges and starting back at square one with casting, with putting a piece together, with finding your way. It doesn’t allow room for getting dull.”

He says mounting a community theater production is a balancing act.

“You make the rehearsal process as positive an experience as possible.

You don’t abuse. You realize these people get up the next morning and have to be at work, so you’re careful in how you use them.”

He says one reason why the Playhouse attracts top talent show after show is that it offers something no other theater in town can match.

“Cast are featured in a very professional setting with top notch costumes and sets and sound and orchestra and all of the trappings and so it’s a wonderful realization for a performer. It’s a remarkable facility.”

Collins and Beck are quick to add they don’t do it alone.

“There would be no way we could feel this pleased about the work we get to do if it wasn’t for the production team and the people we have the privilege of working with every day,” says Collins. “These people are under a lot of pressure and yet they will go the extra mile every time and they’re right there at your side.”

And they’re all under one roof – props, costumes, scenic design, sound, music.

“That’s a really fortuitous thing,” she said.

Almost as fortuitous as Collins and Beck enriching the Omaha theater scene for 30 years.

Jane Fonda comes home

July 23, 2012 8 comments

LATEST UPDATE:  Jane Fonda shares her thoughts about her weekend in Omaha on her blog site-

Jane Fonda Official Site

 janefonda.com/

 

ANOTHER UPDATE: The Film Streams Feature Event presenting Jane Fonda in conversation with Alexander Payne reminded me of the 1981 Omaha Community Playhouse event, An Evening with Mister Fonda.  The earlier event was a pull-out-all-the-stops tribute to Jane’s father, the late iconic actor Henry Fonda.  His Hollywood press agent and close personal friend John Springer, a biographer of the Fondas, interviewed the actor on stage at the Playhouse.  Much like the Jane Fonda event last night, which had Alexander Payne interview her, film clips were screened to break up the talk.  Coincidentally, I was programming a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the early 1980s and so I made sure to schedule a Henry Fonda-Dorothy McGuire film festival that showed around the same time as the Playhouse tribute.   Film Streams’ repertory series of Jane Fonda films continues.  What goes around comes around, and so the circle is completed.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that one of my favorite parts of the Jane Fonda in Conversation with Alexander Payne event was the surprise appearance by Laura Dern.  The actress has maintained a friendship with Payne since she starred in his first feature, Citizen Ruth, which was filmed in and around Omaha.  Her loyalty to and affection for Payne was demonstrated when she was the guest star for the inaugural Film Streams Feature Event that featured her in conversation with the filmmaker.  I got to interview her in advance of that event and an excerpt from my resulting story, When Laura Met Alex, can be found on this blog.  It turns out she came to Omaha for the Fonda event because, not surprisingly, she’s an admirer of the older actress and in fact met her when her father Bruce Dern worked with Fonda on Coming Home.  Dern described how that meeting and her opprotunity to closely observe her at work helped inspire her to pursue acting with the same unvarnished honesty as Fonda.  Both of Dern’s actor parents, her father Bruce Derna and mother Diane Ladd, worked with Fonda and as fate would have it her father is about to star in Payne’s new film, Nebraska.  How’s that for synchronicity?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Payne ends up working with Dern again and somehow finds a role for Fonda in one of his future projects.

As expected, Jane Fonda came and captured the hearts of those attending the Film Streams Feature Event IV last night (July 22) at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. Understandably, it was not only an emotional evening for her but an emotion-packed weekend, much of which she spent touring old family haunts, including the Omaha Communithy Playhouse that her late father, she, and her brother Peter all acted in.  Spoken and unspoken, her father’s legacy looms large over her and she must particularly feel his presence when she’s back where so much Fonda lore is present.  Omaha is where her iconic father Henry Fonda was raised, learned his social consciousnesses, and began acting.  One of the new things I learned from the conversation she engaged in with Alexander Payne live on the Holland stage is that she did some of her growing up here as well.  I knew that her father’s sister Harriet  lived in the Dundee neighborhood where he grew up and that he came back to visit her and I knew that Peter had attended Brownell-Talbot School and the University of Omaha here  but I always assumed Jane had little contact herself with the extended family in their communal hometown.  But it turns out she visted more than occasionally during her youth, even spending chunks of the summer in town during breaks from the elite boarding schools she attended.  She even says it was in Omaha where she came of age as an adolescent in the 1950s, which became her own personal Amercian Graffiti stomping grounds for cruising in cars up and down the main drag, Dodge Street, for taking-in drive-in movies, and for participating in sock-hops, and all the rest.  She told Payne and us that her aunt Harriett arranged for girls her age from the neighborhood to meet her and made she she was invited to parties and such. She also indicated that Warren Buffett and family, who also called Dundee home, have been friends with the Fondas over the years.

I didn’t get to interview her or meet her as I had hoped, but I’m happy that Film Streams has reenaged her with Omaha and Nebraska after her being away a long time.  She was apparently last here in the late ’90s with her then-husband Ted Turner, who has ranching interests in the state. Before that, she accompanied On Golden Pond to its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum Theatre. She’s pledged to continue her relationship with this place and with Payne, who serves on the Film Streams board and is the one responsible for bringing her back into the fold so to speak.  Now it’s time the same be done with Peter Fonda.  And the same with other Nebraskans in Film, including Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Gail Levin, Lynn Stalmaster, Monty Ross, et cetera.  For too long Nebraska has ignored its film heritage.  It should be celebrated and I’m glad to say that Payne and Film Streams are motivated to do that.

 

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